Florida Aquarium makes breakthrough that could help save reefs from extinction

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TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – Researchers at The Florida Aquarium in Tampa say they’ve made another scientific breakthrough that could help save the Florida Reef Tract from extinction.

According to a news release, the aquarium is the first in the world to reproduce ridged cactus coral or Mycetophyllia lamarckiana in human care.

The aquarium said the breakthrough happened over several nights earlier this month at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation which is located at the Florida Conservation Technology Center in Apollo Beach.

The milestone is part of “Project Coral,” a project that was designed for coral regrowth after a major disease outbreak that was killing off corals. The program works in partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Marine Fisheries Service.

“Our resolve to save Florida’s endangered coral reefs continues, and this historic breakthrough by our coral experts, our second in 8 months, provides additional hope for the future of all coral reefs in our backyard and around the globe,” said Roger Germann, President and CEO of The Florida Aquarium. “While our Aquarium remains temporarily closed to the public as we support our community’s wellbeing efforts, not even a global pandemic can slow us down when it comes to protecting and restoring America’s ‘great’ barrier reef.”

Mycetophyllia, commonly known as ridged cactus coral, are native to Florida and the Caribbean.

The ridged cactus coral reproduce by releasing sperm into the water, which will then fertilize eggs inside the parent corals. The corals release a fully-developed larvae that swims immediately after release. Brooding corals release fewer and larger larvae, unlike many other coral species, which can release hundreds or thousands of eggs at a time.

Before the breakthrough, information on how ridged cactus coral reproduce was scarce. There were no photos of the larvae of the ridged cactus coral, and they had never been measured.

“These advances give us hope that the round-the-clock work we are doing will make a difference to help conserve this species and save these animals from extinction,” said The Florida Aquarium Senior Coral Scientist Keri O’Neil.  “To date we have now been able to sexually reproduce eight different species of coral affected by Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease at The Florida Aquarium’s Center for Conservation campus.”

Since the process has never been documented, the aquarium said it’s too soon to tell how long the corals will continue to release the larvae or how many will be produced.

“We certainly could not have achieved these groundbreaking efforts without our partners, including the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Great Lakes Dredge and Dock and TECO Energy.  Without their coordination, involvement and most importantly, financial investments, the Florida Reef Tract might not survive,” added Germann.  

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